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The Brilliance of TV Show Themes

The Brilliance of TV Show Themes

When the CD series TV’s Greatest Hits came out years back through the TVT label, it was a godsend for me. Listening to the ‘70s – ‘80s edition brought back a lot of memories because I grew up with so many classic shows, either when they were first hits or reruns. The memories came flooding back.

TV themes are great little songs. They’re often no longer than a minute, and the best ones leave you wanting more because they’re over too quickly. Back in the ‘70’s, some TV themes even became hits on the pop charts. Several examples that come to mind include the theme from Welcome Back Kotter, which was a #1 hit in 1976, the theme from Happy Days, which also was a #1 hit, the theme from Laverne and Shirley, which hit #25 in 1976, and the theme from S.W.A.T., written by Barry DeVorzon, which also was a #1 hit. (I even remember seeing people dance to it on a ‘70’s rerun of American Bandstand.)

[Editor's Note: I found it!]

When you look at the credits for these themes, it’s no surprise they still hold up, because they were written by great musicians. Jerry Goldsmith, who won the Academy Award for the soundtrack for The Omen, wrote the themes for The Waltons. Composer Dave Grusin did the themes for Baretta and Good Times (with Alan and Merilyn Bergman), Quincy Jones wrote the super funky theme for Sanford and Son, fusion giant Jan Hammer wrote the theme for Miami Vice, composer Charles Fox along with lyricist Norman Gimbel wrote the themes for Happy Days, Laverine and Shirley, Wonder Woman, and The Love Boat (with lyrics by Paul Williams). Fox also had a huge pop hit twice with "Killing Me Softly," which Roberta Flack sang in 1973, and The Fugees covered in the ‘90s.

While a lot of TV themes sound simple, it’s often hard to write something that’s good simple, like say the riff in "Smoke on the Water," rather than something that sounds simplistic. In other words, an idea that makes you say, “Why didn’t I think of that?,” instead of, “Anyone could do that.” It’s always easy to be indulgent; it’s a lot harder to be economical and to the point.

Sanford and Son exchange a hat.

It’s also wonderful to think as a composer how much your music is heard, even decades after the shows went off the air. Pull anyone off the street and chances are pretty good they can sing the theme that Charles Fox wrote for Happy Days, The Love Boat, or Joe Raposo's theme for Three’s Company.

Happy Days was actually a spin-off of Love American Style, and at first the show opened with the Bill Hailey classic, Rock Around the Clock, with the Happy Days theme at the end credits. Then ABC decided to open the show with the Happy Days theme Fox wrote with his lyricist partner Norman Gimbel, and the show finally caught on in the second season, going to #1 in the ratings, and again, the theme song went to #1 as well.

For the Laverne and Shirley theme, Fox and Gimbel hadn’t seen the show yet, but composed the theme when the producers described the girls to them: blue collar, working in a brewery, dreaming of a much better life. And the show’s spirit was captured wonderfully in the song, although it wasn’t as big of a hit on the pop charts as the Happy Days theme. They also tried to get The Love Boat on the charts, and it didn’t hit...but again, who on earth doesn’t know that song?

Again, a great TV show theme can be a terrific lesson in composition. A TV show theme is usually a great musical idea in miniature, and you’ve gotta get your point across and hook the viewers very quickly because you have much less time than a pop single. It’s indeed quite a feat to craft a great theme you can listen to over and over again and still know by heart decades later. Betcha if you study some of your favorite TV show themes, you’ll pick up some valuable lessons about composition you can apply to all kinds of music.


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